Islamic Reform Gone Awry? Afghani’s Theological Colonization of Nahda’s Ethical Reform

By Halil Yenigun
Submitted to Session P6225 (Tensions in Islamic Legal Reform and Renewal, 2020 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
All Middle East;
Islamic Thought;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Jamaladdin al-Afghani (1838-1897) emerges in the history of Muslim reformism as a pioneering figure who proposes reformed religion as the basis of civilization and the means to effectively resist European imperialism. Arguably, Afghani’s transnational influence on the subsequent reformists overshadowed the merits of Nahda era’s preceding attempts at religious and political reform, most significantly that of the Tunisian reformist circles and in particular Khayraddin al-Tunisi (1820-1890). To his credit, Tunisi could appear in intellectual history surveys as the earliest figure to propose modern parliaments as the embodiment of the Islamic principle of shura. However, the full scope of his theory of good government, epitomized by his defense of liberty, to account for the rise of European civilization is understudied.
In this paper I argue that although most scholars lump Afghani and Tunisi together as modernist thinkers, they radically differ from each other: Tunisi, following Rifaa al-Tahtawi, approached the question of reform on the ethical level. European ideas and institutions were products of human reason that could better organize societies irrespective of the “foreign” nature of their homeland. Afghani, in contrast, borrowing from Guizot’s civilizational theory, posited religion as the only path to civilization. In this scheme, as laid out in Refutation of Naturalists (1881), even an incorrect religion would uphold the moral order of society, while a non-theistic vision, aside from being an impossible endeavor, would corrupt morals and bring down the human civilization.
Although widely taken as a polemic against his opponents, Afghani’s framework provided the subsequent reformers with a new agenda of revitalization of the Islamic civilization. His Islamist followers employed this as the common trope to defend Islamic exclusivism and authenticity. While Tunisi’s focus on the ethical betterment of Muslim societies allowed for reconciliation with whatever is “good” among the Europeans, Afghani made ethics singularly contingent on faith, disallowing non-theistic ethics and charting a morally exclusionary course for subsequent Muslim reformers.
The paper will analyze the contours of the shift from ethics to ontology as the focal point of Muslim reformism by juxtaposing Afghani’s Refutation with Tunisi’s The Surest Path (1863). What appears as a linear Muslim reformist thought that imports certain modern ideas into Islam, in fact represents two opposing threads. Therefore, Afghani’s morally exclusionary framework emerges as an aberration from the earlier path by foreclosing ethically more generous formations of Muslim reform and in turn more democratic options in Muslim political thought.